I Truly, Madly, Deeply Hate ‘Deeply’

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Photo by Kyle Ryan on Unsplash

I don’t use Heartlands to rant much, right? O yeah, there was that time. But, listen, there’s a new rhetorical bugaboo I need to brood about. I’m deeply concerned about ‘deeply.’

It’s not so much the adverb’s connection to words like ‘grateful’ and phrases like ‘I love you.’  It’s particularly problematic when it worms its way next to ‘problematic,’ as in: “I found the Kavanaugh hearings deeply problematic.” Defenders and opponents alike were throwing the ‘deeply’s around like Shriners throwing candy in a small-town parade. And for what?

Deeply is a feeling word. It’s useful, perhaps, when trying to describe an opera or a spiritual retreat. I suspect, however, that we’re reaching for it when we feel like ‘very’ just isn’t good enough. 

If I find something ‘very problematic,’ you still are going to want to know more specifics from me to understand why, but you don’t have to deal with my emotions.  You’re also probably not going to worry that something is going on at the core of my being. ‘Deeply problematic’ things ratchet up the stakes and force you to come to terms with something more essential in me that you may never be able to understand.  

Can’t we have some discussions that don’t require ‘deeply’s?  Or, for that matter, even some problems that are just that and not ‘problematic,’ a word that is only one step better than ‘problematize’ in the rankings of Words That Do Not Need to Exist? Why do all of our public disputes have to move to DEFCOM 1?

Don’t answer that. I’ve seen enough presidential tweets to know why.

But when we use such emotional constructions to substitute for really grappling with what makes us feel that way, we tend toward more polarization and less clarity.  We hold onto a kind of knowing that begins in the inner twinge but never explore it enough to allow the twinge to emerge into thought. I just assume, because you’re in my tribe, that you feel it deeply, too, and therefore no more explanation is necessary. I also don’t allow those outside the tribe to understand the source of my twinges, which is the vital, intuitive self that would really like to see more light and find more connection.

Mark Twain was no fan of ‘deeply,’ or any other adverb to tell the truth.  His standard advice was, “When you see an adverb, kill it.” Stephen King says “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

So, let’s make a start, call a spade a spade, and return ‘deeply’ to its proper place in purple prose. We could eliminate it altogether but that would be…well…wrong.

Why You Need to Know What’s Happening on God’s Island

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A flooding tide on Tangier

Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place.  But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle.  It’s there in the title.  He believes the island is not long for this world.

I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does.  On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories.  On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco).  He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.  But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.

Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region.  Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces.  When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are.  He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.

They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant.  Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation.  Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.

None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017.  Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.

The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)

By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly.  He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it.  The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.

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Earl Swift

Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there.  He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail.  The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.

But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told.  In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective.  Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change.  Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.

The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book.  But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259)  Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)

Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem.  Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said.  He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)

That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier.  They are no strangers to loss.  Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past.  Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.

IMG_3692But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian.  It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t).  But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.

I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier.  Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.

Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss.  I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it.  He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”

Dreams Nursed in Darkness: Tommy Orange’s There, There

The best way to understand the ending of There, There, Tommy Orange’s new novel, is to remember that the bullets were always coming.  Orange tells you this in the non-fiction prologue to the book where he describes what it’s like to be a Native American today.  The Europeans who ‘settled’ the land “fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” (10)

Later, in an interlude, he reminds you what to look for as the climactic powwow approaches:

“Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming for miles. Years. Their sound will break water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.” (141)

Yes, I forgot the spoiler alert.  But you don’t need one.  This book is not about the violent ending where the story of the twelve disparate Native American characters comes together.  It’s about the many ways they have lived before they got there.

There, There has been getting a lot of positive press. It’s a first novel by an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. It’s acclaimed for its strong writing, realistic characters, and refusal of stereotype.  All true. 

But Tommy Orange didn’t come by his identity easily. Like his characters, he struggled with what it means to be Native American in Oakland, California after centuries of concentrated effort to make that label past-tense.  “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign,” Orange says in the Prologue. “But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” (8)

So 12-year-old Orvil Red Feather, sees a dancer in full regalia on TV and feels something that propels him into learning about his heritage:  

“The dancer moved like gravity meant something different for him…There was so much [Orvil had] missed, hadn’t been given. Hadn’t been told. In that moment, in front of the TV, he knew. He was a part of something. Something you could dance to.” (121)

Meanwhile, the Great Aunt who raised him, suppressing that heritage because of the pain it caused her, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, listens to Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson and feels a different impulse to dance. “That’s what she loves about Motown, the way it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so.” (162)

There are alcoholics and revolutionaries here.  Abusers, artists, and criminals.  But they endure by not letting anyone else get the last word on what it means to be Native American.

“Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen,” Opal tells Orvil. “You, me.  Every part of our people that made it is precious.  You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” (119)

The title of the book comes (in part) from Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland after discovering that her childhood home was lost to new development such that now “there is no there there.” But Orange’s characters are building something new in the urban landscape. They are no strangers to 3-D printers and drones and the technology that is threatening to turn every place into a soulless, placeless void.  It may be dark, but as one wounded protagonist notes in the aftermath of the powwow, he “isn’t going anywhere.” (290)  He will remain.

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Tommy Orange

A quote from Jean Genet begins the fourth section of There, There: “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.” (227) Tommy Orange’s book is such a dream.

Burning from Beginning to End with Scott Cairns

It’s all here.  Beginnings and endings.  Heaven and hell.  Divine intentions and bodily appetites.  That’s what you get with the poet Scott Cairns.  Look for the kitchen sink.  I’m sure it’s in there, too.

Recently I came back for a season to Philokalia: New & Selected Poems, Cairns’ 2002 collection.  It’s as rich and evocative as I remembered.  Nobody captures the sensuality of angels brushing the earth and women brushing their hair like Cairns.  He’s going to linger on the moment, as all good poets do.  After all, “So little to be done, and so much time.” (67)

Let’s start at the creation.  Actually before.  In ‘The Beginning of the World’ Cairns gives us audience with the Lover who hungers for a Beloved prior to anything coming into view:

God’s general availability, His brooding peckishness, an appetite and predilection—even before invention—to invent, to give vent, an all but unsuspected longing for desire followed by the eventual arrival of desire’s deep hum, its thrumming escalation and upward flight into the dome’s aperture, already open and voluble and without warning giving voice. (121)

Then, let’s go to the apocalypse—‘The End of Heaven and the End of Hell’ in a 12-part poem titled ‘Disciplinary Treatises.’  The destination turns out to be the same no matter how you’ve lived.  We lose the “feeble fretwork” of this age and we become ourselves.

And that long record of our choices—your

every choice—is itself the final

body, the eternal dress. And, of course,

there extends before us finally a measure

we can recognize. We see His Face

and see ourselves, and flee. And shame—old

familiar—will sustain that flight unchecked,

or the Ghost, forgotten just now—merest

spark at the center—will flare, bid us turn

and flame unto a last consuming light:

His light, our light, caught at last together

as a single brilliance, extravagant,

compounding awful glories as we burn. (132)

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Scott Cairns

Like Jamie Quatro, whose novel Fire Sermon earlier this year mined the quarry of desires, carnal and spiritual, Cairns is not afraid of burning. He knows the impossibility of staying on the surface.  Even when he pretends, as in the poem ‘Taking Off Our Clothes,’ “that there is no such thing/as metaphor,” he fails.  “[T]his could all/be happening in Kansas,” he says, and yet his proposed simple encounter with a lover becomes, despite itself, transcendent.

Cairns has now created a body of work that stands among the best of any Christian poet.  His range is impressive, from the quotidian to the esoteric.  And the depth of his study shows through, sometimes lightly, often with surprising depth.  As when he investigates the Greek word nous, showing why it is more than mind and describes it thus:

Dormant in its roaring cave,

the heart’s intellective appetite grows dim,

unless you find a way to wake it. (26)

And then he goes on to suggest an exercise to do just that.

I spend many mornings with a Scott Cairns poem.  His collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, which I reviewed earlier, is a great introduction to the Christian spiritual tradition.  Philokalia is a great introduction to the poet himself.  And so much more.

Eating Spinach with Mr. Wesley

One of my great unfinished reading projects is The Works of John Wesley.  A long row of books from the series lines one of my shelves these days holding the collected works of the principal founder of Methodism including sermons, journal entries, and minutes of the first conferences.

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Mr. Wesley’s electrifying machine

This week I received Volume 32: Medical and Health Writings, edited by James G. Donat and Randy L. Maddox.  I doubt I’ll get through all 788 pages (!) and, truth be told, although Mr. Wesley on grace is a thing to hold dear, Mr. Wesley on health can be a little scary.  He was fascinated by the new science of electricity, for instance, and suggested its use to cure everything from leprosy to bruises!

But some of Wesley’s recommendations still ring true.  On June 5, 1778 he wrote to a correspondent:

“I advise you:

    1. Never sit up later than ten.

    2. Never rise later than six.

    3. Walk at least an hour daily in the open air; if it rains all day, in the dining room.

    4. Choose such diet, both for quantity and quality, as you find sits light upon your stomach… [He preferred mutton and beef to veal and chicken.]

    5. Eat as much spinach, cress, and summer fruits as agrees best with your stomach.” [659]

Bodily health, for Wesley was part of a more general dedication to spiritual holiness.  And if he couldn’t get his hearers all the way to God, he could at least get them close.  As when he advised one person interested in better health:

 “[E]very fair day walk to, if not round, the churchyard.  When you are a little hardened by this, you may venture at a convenient opportunity (suppose on a Sunday morning) to attend the public worship.  Till you do I cannot say you are in God’s way, and therefore I am not sure you will find his blessing.” [668]

Sneaky, that Mr. Wesley.  But on these latter points, absolutely right.

O the Stories We Could Tell!

What if we ran out of stories?  It doesn’t seem like we’re any danger of that.  Netflix announced earlier this year that it was going to spend $8 billion on original content in 2018.  Other media outlets are increasing their output.  Even amateurs with a smartphone are producing YouTube series.

Our appetite for stories doesn’t seem to be slowing either.  Streaming, from Netflix alone, accounts for 15% of all the online traffic worldwide.  Binging on a richly-textured series is a happy pastime for a lot of people.  (For me, too, truth be told.)

But what stories guide our common life?  It doesn’t seem that we can agree on a narrative that helps us understand the moment that we’re in.  Is it The Handmaid’s Tale? The Avengers? Game of Thrones?

One of Bishop Sharma Lewis’s key initiatives has been to encourage Virginia United Methodists to read through the Bible once a year.  Besides being a means of grace, immersing ourselves in Scripture gives us a chance to be formed by our most elemental stories.  They are by no means easy to read.  (Game of Thrones has nothing on some of the violent displays in Israel’s history!)  But they challenge us to see, behind every disturbing human episode, a divine hand and intention.

Television critics like to bemoan the fact that so many of the new TV offerings are retreads of old tales.  But here’s a basic plot that could illumine every story.  We say it every time we gather around the table.  Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

O the stories we could tell with that premise!

In Praise of Bad Writing: David Bentley Hart’s New Testament

The New Testament, as translated by the influential Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, is bad.  But that’s what makes it such a good read for Christians who need their settled understandings tweaked.

Hart’s new translation doesn’t strive for literary heights. He has an ear for beautiful language, something that comes through in all of his writing.  But here he aims for reproducing the feel and flavor of the original Greek texts and, sad to say, for all their influence, most of the original authors were not great writers.  

Hart allows that Luke and Hebrews show some elevated style, but don’t get him started on John, the author of Revelation.  In Hart’s translation, the sea of fire in Revelation 19:20 becomes a marsh.  An accompanying note contains a bit of uncharacteristic Hart-ian understatement: “In very antique usage (Homer, for instance), the term [translated as marsh] could be used as a poetic trope for the sea; but John does not give the impression of being someone possessed of a classical education.” (527)

If the marsh of fire sounds unusual, that’s kind of the point.  Hart says, “I would hope my translation would succeed, in many places, in making the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling.” (xvii)  Of course, sometimes it only succeeds in making the familiar obscure, as when Hart turns Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9 for love overflowing “with knowledge and full insight” [NRSV] into love that abounds “in full knowledge and in all percipience.” Glad we cleared that up.

A “Concluding Scientific Postscript” helps explain some of the rationale for Hart’s approach.  Here you learn why ‘gehenna,’ often translated as ‘hell,’ has become the ‘Vale of Hinnom’ and why ‘eternity’ becomes, in places, “that Age.”  You also learn why the prologue to John is so difficult to render in English and what you can lose when you do.

Hart himself does not recommend his translation for liturgical use.  He knows it’s odd.  But he has aimed to communicate the strangeness and urgency of the early Christian community.  Hart knows the environment from which these texts emerge—the complex era of the Roman imperial age in which Jewish and Greek ideas were producing radical new religious movements.  And he feels, behind the imprecise and breathless texts of the early Church, the energy of converts eager to share a life-changing message at all costs.

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David Bentley Hart

Sure, he’s got his ongoing interests and projects that he brings to his work.  Every translator does and Hart is far more upfront about his than most.  That didn’t stop N.T. Wright from slagging Hart’s translation in a January Christian Century review. “[Hart’s] two main claims (to be “literal” and “undogmatic”) are not borne out,” the prolific former Bishop of Durham notes,  “and the promise of displaying the strangeness of early Christian life disappears behind different kinds of strangeness”—a strangeness that Wright attributes to Hart’s theological agenda of anti-Augustinianism and universalism.

Watching the resulting Wright-Hart dust-up has entertained many theologians who know that Hart has never met an intellectual dispute that he couldn’t milk for spectacle.  During the brief heyday of the New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Hart wrote the most gleeful Christian apology I ever read—a book whose title betrayed its consistent tone: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

In 2012 Wright published his own New Testament translation, and following the Christian Century review, Hart has now taken to accompanying his defense of his translation with an attack on Wright’s as “the single worst translation ever done of the New Testament.”  In a recent interview with Jason Micheli on the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast he denounced Wright’s habit of “writing down to the common Christian, whom he apparently thinks is a four-year-old recovering from a concussion.”

With his intemperate exuberance and keen intellect, Hart resembles no one more than the Apostle Paul, who once told a church, (as Hart translates it in Galatians 5:12), “Would that they who are causing you agitation might just castrate themselves!” It’s the language of people who have been converted into a new Kingdom.

“This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts or an infrequent intonation sounded only in their most urgent moments; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere.  The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly).  There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade.  Everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgment that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent.  In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false.” (xxvii)

If you see that in Hart’s translation, he will feel he has done his job. However bad it seems.

Picking Up the Pieces in Iraq: A Review of Frankenstein in Baghdad

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St. George slaying the dragon before his own demise(s)

However St. George died, (and the catalogues of his gruesome tortures are legion), he was reputedly hard to keep down.  “The king ordered that the saint be placed in the olive press,” one story goes, “until his flesh was torn to pieces and he died.  They then threw him out of the city, but the Lord Jesus gathered the pieces together and brought him back to life, and he went back into the city.”

That’s one of the epigraphs at the beginning of Ahmed Saadawi’s strange novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad.  It’s appropriate for a horror story that centers around a character created from the disparate pieces of terrorist victims who litter the streets of war-torn Iraq following the regular car bombs. But the Whatsitsname is no saint on a holy mission. He’s…

Well, what is he exactly?

Perhaps he’s a metaphor for Iraq itself—mutilated and pieced together so many times that it’s a hideous pastiche of a reality.  Yes, surely that.  Brigadier Majid, the head of the mysterious Tracking and Pursuit Department of the Iraqi government, believed as much.  “It was the Americans who were behind this monster,” he thought. (268) 

No one seems to understand American motives.  As another Iraqi character observes, “they operated with considerable independence and no one could hold them to account for what they did.  As suddenly as the wind could shift, they could throw you down a dark hole.” (69)  Why wouldn’t they create a monster who preys on people in the streets?

Except that the Whatitsname wasn’t indiscriminate in his attacks—at least not initially.  He sought retribution for those responsible for the deaths of the component parts of his body.  “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace.” (130)  But when individual parts were avenged, necrosis would set in, and in order to persist, the Whatitsname had to change his moral calculus to acquire new parts.  “There are no innocents who are completely innocent,” he began to tell himself, “or criminals who are completely criminal.” (214)  And thus he justified his continuing killing spree.

freestocks-org-425059-unsplashIf it seems like a squalid and empty philosophy, it’s as good as they come by in Baghdad.  You can see it in any of the many interesting characters who occupy this book.  Haid, the junk dealer who crafted the Whatitsname because he didn’t have a corpse to bury when his partner Nahem was blown up.  Faraj, the covetous realtor, who finds a way to profit on any misfortune.  Ali Baher al-Saidi, the corrupt owner of the al-Haqiqa magazine.  Nawal, the glamorous film director who might be having an affair with Saidi.  Mahmoud, the journalist who falls for her.

Really everyone has their own way to make it in the moral abyss that followed the American invasion of 2003.  The purist of the lot may be Elishva, the Assyrian Christian woman who talks to St. George via a painting and who believes that the Whatsitsname is her son, Daniel, returned to her at last despite the reports that he was killed in the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s.  At least, her neighbor, Umm Salim, believed “God’s hand was on her shoulder wherever she was.” (9)

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Ahmed Saadawi

Perhaps the best that could be said for St. George and the Whatitsname and all the residents of the Bataween neighborhood of Baghdad is that they persist.  In the face of violence that threatens to shred them into non-existence, they carry on, inhabiting the ruins until some new story can emerge.

Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. The translation by Jonathan Wright is good.  It’s a disturbing read, but if you’re looking for a monster who makes you think this Halloween, the Whatitsname might be your guy.